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Promoting Safety: The Secret to Increasing Trust and Innovation

October 7, 2021
Cohesive Teams
Russ Sarratt

3M has thrived because it has created a workplace where employees feel safe to try new things. The company annually produces over 60,000 products that you and I use every day. Scotch Tape, Post-it Notes, Masking Tape, Command Strips, ACE Bandages, and Scotchlite Safety products are all brands recognized worldwide.

An early leader of the company, William L. McKnight, heavily influenced the company’s focus on innovation. He had a philosophy of “listen to anyone with an idea,” and he encouraged all employees to research and experiment. Roadblocks, failures, and disappointments would not derail the company. They would simply be viewed as opportunities to innovate. Many of 3M’s biggest products have come after an initial failure.

How has one of the largest companies in the world remained one of the most innovative for over 100 years? The secret lies in their intentional effort towards creating an emotionally safe environment. Working to create an environment of safety has many benefits for a team, but here we will focus on two main benefits.

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Safety Promotes Innovation

First, safety actually promotes innovation. Beginning with his time as an entry-level employee, McKnight believed that failure could lead to new ideas and opportunities. As his leadership responsibility grew, McKnight worked to create a culture of safety that encouraged innovation and collaboration. He understood that if team members felt safe to try and fail without fear of punishment, they would be more likely to discover things that did not previously exist. They would be able to find creative solutions to problems that otherwise would go unanswered.

Innovation seeks to find new solutions to problems. It builds, creates, and rethinks. It discovers what was previously unknown.

Safety promotes innovation; fear destroys it.

William L. McKnight understood this as well as anyone. He created a policy known as the “15% Rule” at 3M. He believed that giving talented people time to discover and tinker on projects they were passionate about would deliver new products. His policy stated that all 3M engineers could spend 15 percent of their time on any project they liked. Many of 3M’s most successful projects came not from company R&D, but from engineers who followed their curiosity to discover products that delivered on unmet needs. 

Many other companies have followed 3M’s lead in this area. Most famously, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wrote in a letter to shareholders, “if the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle.” This type of accomplishment is only possible when team members feel safe and free to dream about what could be.

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Safety Increases Trust

The second major benefit is that safety increases trust. Trust on a team brings the potential for strong relational bonds, healthier conflict management, and increased engagement. Safety leads to openness which leads to trust. Trust is like a turbocharger to the engine of a team. It allows the team to go farther and faster than before. 

A team with high trust benefits every team member.  Each individual has the ability to grow into the best version of themselves. A team without trust not only harms the team’s effectiveness, it can also make for a demoralizing work environment where people question people rather than questioning their ideas. Team members feel attacked rather than supported. Team members only fight for their ideas even when someone else’s idea is better. Some may be afraid to share their thoughts for fear that their own words will be used against them in the future. No one wants to work in a place where they “walk on eggshells” every day, always afraid of when the next major issue will pop up. 

When safety is not present on a team, fear will take the reins.

Fear is a strong motivator, but it rarely pushes people to be their best; rather, it traps them into thinking and acting defensively.

Picture a basketball team with a domineering coach. He is hard on his players and demands excellence in everything they do. His version of excellence means never making a mistake. He expects perfection every single play. He is quick to point out failure. If a player misses a shot during a game, then the player is immediately sent to the bench. If a player turns the ball over to the other team, he is immediately sent to the bench. As you can imagine, it wouldn’t take long for most of the players to play in fear of getting sent to the bench. The players hesitate to take shots. They are afraid to make mistakes because the focus is on the punishment they will receive rather than the opportunity for success.

Since most are skeptical that true safe space is possible, we can’t be offended by a need to “prove it.” Beyond questioning whether safety is even possible, many struggle with a false idea of what safety on a team really is. Oftentimes, they assume:

  • Everyone is overly nice. 
  • No one is held accountable. 
  • No one shares what really is on their mind. 
  • No one can disagree.

This picture of safety is assumed because unfortunately, this is what many have experienced. Past difficulties have brought out the worst in teams, and now they assume that is normal. When the going gets tough, people tend to look out for only themselves.

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The truth is that team safety really is possible to achieve, but it takes awareness and intentional effort. Safety can only be proven when it matters most…when times are hard. One of my favorite leadership quotes comes from early Roman philosopher Publilius Syrus. He noted that “anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” Anyone can captain the ship when there are no waves crashing. When things are easy, it’s easy to lead. 

I believe this quote applies to our pursuit of safety as well. When things are going well, and everything seems smooth, it is easy to advocate for safety on the team. But what happens when we are stressed? What about when resources are scarce? What happens when someone hurts you or disagrees with you? It’s in those times where we must pause before speaking. We must not react with anger. We must listen and we must think. This is the time to prove we value safety on our team. Team safety takes a long time to build and only moments to destroy. Every moment counts!

Four Ways to Promote Safety on Your Team

Here are four practical ways you can promote safety on your team:

  1. Don’t criticize new ideas when they first come up. Listen and evaluate each idea on its own merits. Does this get our team closer to achieving our goal? Commit to following the best idea, no matter whose idea it is.
  2. In regards to trust, someone must go first. If your team doesn’t feel safe at the moment, someone must take the bold step to trust when it may not be warranted. Be the one to take the first step! Give someone the benefit of the doubt. Throw your crazy idea out to others. One courageous step can lead to others.
  3. A “protect me” mindset is not serving others and ultimately doesn’t help me either. Remember, we all win or none of us do.
  4. Don’t belittle others to make yourself look better. Taking that approach will usually lead to someone else doing the same to you. Don’t celebrate when your teammate fails. “I told you so” is rarely safe for anyone.

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy made a bold declaration. 

We choose to go to the Moon…We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

At the time Kennedy gave this speech, the technology to land on the moon didn’t actually exist. That technology would have to be discovered and created before reaching the moon could become a reality. There would be tests, and trials, and failures. But there was a commitment and an expectation to do whatever it would take to put a man on the moon and return him home safely. The engineers and astronauts were not afraid of making mistakes along the journey. They were motivated by finding a way to achieve their goal.

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